By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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By Jill Stewart
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Geography also added to the headaches. Rafha is close to Iraq’s southern border, and security at the camp, which was meant to house civilians, was lax. Sometimes, camp residents would travel to Iraq, bringing back money, goods and weapons.
And then there was the issue of backgrounding the former combatants. Frazier says he also received many reports from Rafha residents alleging that the camp harbored “sleeper agents” for Saddam Hussein. “I believed those reports because I was hearing the exact same thing from all these different groups. And normally, they could never agree on anything,” he says.
Frazier, who says he had a rough, working knowledge of Arabic and participated with translators in some of the interviews of the ex-combatants requesting asylum in the U.S., remembers one instance in particular.
“We were just about to start an interview, when one of the translators asked me why this individual was being considered for asylum. He told me the guy was in the Republican Guard -- Iraq‘s elite unit -- and was a supporter of Saddam Hussein.”
Frazier says this former soldier had no papers or military documents identifying his former assignment, and he told the translator he needed some proof that the man was a Republican Guard member. “I said, ’Give me the proof and we will hand him over to the Saudi guards.‘ But he never gave me anything,” says Frazier.
Frazier says he faced the same problem in dealing with the reports of alleged sleeper agents he was receiving from the various camp factions. Because of the political deal struck with the United Nations to resettle these former prisoners in third countries, Frazier says, he repeatedly told camp leaders that he needed evidence to back up their claims. “I don’t know whether they were afraid or they didn‘t trust us because we had dumped these guys in there, or let Saddam stay in power, but no one ever came forward with proof,” he says.
Frazier, a former Army counterintelligence officer, says he was concerned enough to send cables back to Washington detailing his worries about the inability to adequately background the ex-prisoners bound for asylum in the U.S. Most of the people he saw had no documents to verify their stories. He says he never received any direction back from the State Department.
Today, Frazier says he still worries that Saddam Hussein may have slipped sleeper agents into the U.S., though he has no evidence that he did. “It would have been easy to do,” he says. “Remember, we really couldn’t background a lot of these guys, and I was getting all those reports [of sleeper agents] from inside the camp.” Frazier also is concerned that some Iraqis might be subject to blackmail if the U.S. re-invades. “Iraqi intelligence could send a message to these people reminding them that some of their arelatives are still living in Iraq. They could say, we want you to do such and such or your family members will have big problems,” says Frazier. “And I don‘t think Saddam would hesitate to make good on such a threat.”
The Weekly has obtained a declassified April 1991 report detailing the ex-POW processing system. The former Iraqi soldiers were “searched, showered, weighed, given a physical and new clothes, deloused, fingerprinted, photographed and given an ID card,” according to the report. Those materials were shipped to a central database, but there’s no mention of what happened to the records. And Frazier says he was never made privy to that information.
Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey told the Weekly that he, too, was concerned that these ex-POWs were not properly vetted before their resettlement in the U.S. “Who knows what we did in backgrounding these people?” he adds. “They should have vetted everyone in a reasonable manner before they gave them asylum. Instead, as the saying goes, we may have left our most important work undone.”
One aspect of the immigration program did provoke criticism a decade ago. Veterans groups and conservative Republican legislators objected to the benefit packages available to the Iraqis, which included Medicaid, job and language-training assistance, health care, plus other welfare and housing benefits worth about $7,000 per person. At the time, the INS and other agencies insisted that they properly screened all who sought asylum.
Representative Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) sponsored a 1994 resolution that cut $2.8 million from the relocation budget. At the time, he raised concerns about the resettlement program and questioned the level of scrutiny given to applicants. In a written statement, Stearns recently reiterated his position: “I remain concerned that not enough was done to ensure that these individuals [POWs] do not pose a security risk to the United States.”